Skip to content
Latino America

Immigration Amnesty in the 1980s

Main | Amnesty In The Land of Enchantment | Amnesty’s Next Front: Small Town USA
IRCA, The First Amnesty: What It Is, Why It Matters | What’s Next in the Amnesty Debate?

Take part in the conversation: The social media searching tool below already displays Tweets that reference immigration and border issues, but to ensure you get included, add this hashtag to your Tweets: #n21irca

By Evan Wyloge

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A mariachi outfit typically includes a pair of black slacks and a black jacket, adorned with shiny embroidery that runs up the outside of the leg and swirls in fancy patterns on the arms and back. A flowery, red necktie dangles just below the neck of the white shirt. The costume isn’t complete without an oversized, decoratively stitched sombrero.

Ricardo Magallanes stepped off a plane here wearing just such an outfit — the only clothes he brought with him from Chihuahua, Mexico.

He laughs about it now. He had $15 in his pocket. It was supposed to be a short stay. That was 28 years ago.

Magallanes couldn’t have known on that spring day in 1981 that he would end up being one of the nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants to be granted amnesty five years later under a law called the Immigration Reform and Control Act. He didn’t know he would go on to own a small business or that he and his wife would raise two children with U.S. citizenship.

On that day, walking through the airport in his traje de mariachi, Magallanes was a Mexican national looking to earn a better wage in the United States. He wasn’t planning to typify an immigrant success story, nor was he planning to become a statistic in the argument over whether an amnesty could achieve its goals.


The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 offered nearly immediate legal residency to undocumented immigrants with an option to pursue full citizenship after five years.

A total of 2.7 million have gained residency through the act. It’s uncertain how many of those eventually became citizens, but most estimates put the number at about 1 million.

IRCA was a godsend for undocumented immigrants desperate for the chance to come out of the shadows and truly join the communities in which they were living. Critics, however, complained that the new residents overtaxed the social services system. Moreover, they argued, the amnesty didn’t serve its main purpose: to slow future illegal entry.

Two decades later, the issues are still being debated.

In 1986 most immigrants applying for legal residency lived in metropolitan areas in the Southwest. Cities like Los Angeles and Houston accounted for huge portions of the newly legalized population, but their size also allowed eased assimilation.

Albuquerque was neither the largest nor the smallest of the cities impacted, but a disproportionate number of its residents applied for residency through IRCA. The government didn’t track agricultural workers, but more than 18,000 of the total number of non-agricultural workers who applied for IRCA came from Albuquerque, a city of about 360,000 at the time.

One of them was Magallanes.


Ricardo Magallanes was born in Delicias, a small city in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. He was 6 when his father died and the family moved to Juarez, a bustling border city where his grandmother lived. He graduated from high school and began studying public administration at a Mexican university before deciding to marry and pursue his passion for music.

Magallanes played guitar and flute with bands that performed in Mexico and Texas. Band members usually earned more in just a few months in the United States than they could make in a year in Mexico.

One day early in 1981, Magallanes got a phone call from a friend — another musician from Juarez — who said he should come to Albuquerque to join his band there. Because Magallanes had crossed the border without trouble before, it made sense to simply buy a plane ticket from El Paso to Albuquerque. It cost $22.

For the next few years, Magallanes shared the cost of an apartment with a fellow band member. They played shows for cash, and they paid their rent in cash. Magallanes visited his wife in Juarez as often as he could, but he felt settled in Albuquerque and had no intention of leaving.

But his visa had expired after just a few months in the United States, and Magallanes knew that if he got pulled over and his immigration status was checked, he would be deported.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the IRCA bill into law, giving hundreds of thousands of Latinos the opportunity to forever remove the risk of deportation. The bill later became known as the immigration amnesty bill.


In 1978, John Lawit pulled into Albuquerque, a newly arrived transplant from New York City.

He had just driven his Volkswagen van across the country, and he thought it was time to sell it and buy something more practical. So he took the van to a local Volkswagen dealership to have it appraised. When he returned a few days later, the dealership had sold it.

Lawit, who had just spent his first year out of law school focusing on immigration law in Manhattan, promptly sued. The firm representing the dealership quickly settled and offered Lawit his first job practicing law in Albuquerque.

A year later, Lawit opened his own practice, focusing again on his passion, immigration law. Although the volume of work in Albuquerque wasn’t nearly what he had seen in Manhattan, he knew it was his calling, and he knew he wanted to live in Albuquerque.

“I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I had no bills to speak of,” Lawit said of those early years. “I had the legal knowledge and the time to be broke.”

He opened his doors in 1979. In those days, clients came to him mostly for help in filing their immigration papers. It was a slow, intricate process. Immigration quotas allowed limited numbers of applicants to be processed, and the state of New Mexico was full of immigrants.


“Wait right here,” Lawit says. “I want to show you something.”

He stands up and hustles around his large, wooden desk and out the door of his office.

“I show this to all my clients,” he half yells as he heads down the hallway.

When he returns, his arms are wrapped around a large frame. He sets it on his desk and points to Albuquerque on a map that predates the Mexican-American War of the mid-1800s.

“It wasn’t more than a few generations ago that where we’re standing right now was part of Mexico.”

He pauses and blinks before driving home his point.

“Of course, we have Mexican and Hispanic immigrants,” Lawit says. They’ve been living and moving through this area for hundreds of years.”

As Congress debated the IRCA bill, Lawit said he doubted it would ever become law. He didn’t think enough legislators would support it, and he didn’t believe that it could practically be carried out.

“Of course, all my clients followed the news every day, looking for some indication that amnesty would pass,” he said, “but I never believed that such a thing could happen.”

Lawit was traveling in California in the fall of 1986 when he heard the news.

“When Reagan signed the bill, my jaw just dropped,” he said.


In the years following passage of IRCA, criticism mounted that amnesty was not the solution to illegal immigration and that it created huge costs that had not been fully taken into account.

Their argument was essentially this: Undocumented immigrants who receive amnesty are a drain on medical and social services and on schools, costing far more than they contribute to the public coffers.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service attempted to resolve the debate by tracing amnesty recipients as they moved from illegal to legal. The survey, mandated as part of IRCA, included interviews of 6,192 applicants who were non-agricultural workers from 1989 to 1992.

The survey showed that even after being granted amnesty, 18.5 percent of respondents did not use health care services in the United States. Only 4.5 percent said they had used a hospital emergency room. The remainder went to a doctor’s office, private or outpatient clinic or a community, neighborhood or family health care center for medical services.

Of those who said they had been admitted to a hospital overnight within the previous 12 months, 44.5 percent said their medical service was paid for by insurance provided either by employers or purchased privately, and 18.6 percent said their medical service was paid by Medicare or Medicaid. Only 3.8 percent said their medical care was provided free of charge.

When queried about their use of social services, only 4.5 percent of respondents said they were receiving financial assistance or food stamps from any public agency at the time they applied for residency.

The survey did not ask about schools.


Albuquerque’s Health and Social Services Centers offer health care services at four clinics around the city.

George Montoya is program manager at the East Central clinic, where nearly all the clients are Hispanic. He was new to health care service when he arrived in 1984, and he got a quick education in the realities of Albuquerque’s immigrant population.

“I had no idea how large the immigrant population was then,” Montoya said. “Our family clinic started as a trailer across the street, and the word spread fast through the neighborhood.”

Albuquerque continued to be a popular destination for Hispanic immigrants, documented or undocumented, and every few years the center expanded. Each time, it faced the limits of a finite staff and facility.

“Our biggest challenge has always been having the resources to serve this community,” Montoya said.

For Montoya, calculating the impact of undocumented immigrants on the health care system is neither a priority nor a possibility.

“We’re not allowed to check clients’ immigration status,” he said flatly. “I know that some of them are undocumented, but we don’t have any way to check that, and it doesn’t make any difference.”

Montoya explained that to receive service, a client has to show proof of insurance, set up a payment plan or qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. The center’s costs are partially offset by the city, but the client’s immigration status is never asked — and can’t be asked, according to federal law.

Over the years, Montoya has seen a number of clients go from illegal status to legal. It changes them, he said. They are more at ease sharing information and more proactive about their health care. Montoya said the overall health care system benefits, and, in particular, emergency services aren’t utilized as much as they would be otherwise.

“If our clients are undocumented and generally avoid bringing attention to themselves, that carries over here,” he said. “There’s a stigma to being undocumented, and they feel like they have to stay guarded.”


When Ricardo Magallanes realized he would qualify for the new amnesty program back in 1986, he began getting his paperwork together.

He organized a detailed account of the shows his band had played over the years and got the required medical examination. He also had to get a statement from his landlord to show that he had been living in Albuquerque.

Magallanes made appointments with the INS office, submitted his application and was granted temporary residence within a few weeks. Permanent status came about six months later.

“After getting my residence, the first thing I did was visit my wife in Mexico,” Magallanes said with a wide smile. “As soon as we were eligible, we filled out her application for residence.”

Magallanes said his wife’s application resulted in a much longer and more difficult process. It was years before she was granted residency.

She ended up moving to Albuquerque with only a tourist visa to be with her husband. Not long after, in 1989, she gave birth to their first son, Pablo. Their second son, Victor, was born two years later.


Diego Gallegos started his career as a teacher in 1973. He quickly moved into administration, holding positions at the state and district levels. He currently serves as assistant superintendent for schools and community support for the Albuquerque public schools.

Gallegos can’t produce any numbers that show how much children of undocumented immigrants cost the school system in Albuquerque. All children are entitled to be educated, and their immigration status isn’t considered, he said.

“What would we say about someone who moved here from Kentucky? Would we call them a drain because they moved here?” he asked. “No. So why would we think that about someone who came from Mexico?”

Gallegos couldn’t say definitively what income taxes undocumented workers pay or don’t pay, but he pointed out that all families, regardless of immigration status, pay sales tax and property tax, which are most closely linked to education funding.

And he doesn’t buy the argument that illegal immigrants are a drain on the system.

“While that makes for good political talk, it’s an argument that to me doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.

Even though IRCA practically made John Lawit’s firm, he looks back on it as a complete mess.

“It was the single biggest incidence of fraud in the history of the United States,” he said.

Instead of solving the problem of illegal immigration, he said, it simply divided the nation.

When Lawit hears talk of another legalization program, he cringes. No program can be successful, he said, until there is a more basic discussion about what the goals of the country’s immigration policy should be.

And that won’t happen without strong political leadership. He almost snorts when he says it.

Politicians, he said, are “spineless, gutless people who, whenever they hear the word ‘immigration,’ run under their desks. Senators, congressmen, the president … It’s become a partisan issue, and they have no idea what they’re doing.”

Lawit won’t say exactly what kind of immigration policy he thinks the United States should have. He only knows that the present system doesn’t work.

“The history of immigration law has been directionless,” he said. “We’re still dealing with a law passed in 1952, from a time when the U.S. was cowering from communism. It reflects a paranoid society, and it’s been amended, like, 150 times. It has to be thrown in the trash.”


Five years ago, Ricardo Magallanes went into business for himself. He opened Pueblito Latino, a small store that sells Hispanic foods and Mexican items.

His main business comes from the money-wiring operation he runs out of the store. Every day, Mexican and Central American immigrants come to send money to their families back home.

Magallanes said he can relate to them; after all, he was in their position 23 years ago.

But today he has something they do not. It’s a piece of paper that represents everything he has built and everything he hopes for.

The paper is dated May 2, 2008, the day he and his wife joined more than 500 former immigrants to be sworn in as citizens in one of the largest such ceremonies Albuquerque has ever seen.

Main | Amnesty In The Land of Enchantment | Amnesty’s Next Front: Small Town USA
IRCA, The First Amnesty: What It Is, Why It Matters | What’s Next in the Amnesty Debate?